Thursday, February 1, 2018

THE NATURE OF THE BEAST by Louise Penny: a chilling conversation

I love Louise Penny's novels about Three Pines, Qu├ębec: a Brigadoon-like village near the Vermont border full of friendship, good food, warm fires, beautiful scenery--and the occasional murder. Penny can terrify you, though more often she makes you chuckle. With a perspicacious eye for character, she can also amaze you with her insights.

I recently came across this chilling conversation in The Nature of the Beast (2015). Retired Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is questioning a physics professor about a suspect, Gerald Bull. The professor speaks first:
"... no one really worked with Gerald Bull. It might start out that way, but eventually you found yourself working for him."

"Were you working for him when he came up with the plans for the Supergun?"

"No. I left when he began using the Soviets as a back door to sell his arms. He wasn't very smart."

"Is that why you left? Fear you'd get caught?"

"No. I left because it was wrong. ... Gerald Bull was the consummate salesman, and completely without a conscience."

"Why did you just say that he wasn't very smart?" asked Gamache.

"He made some stupid choices, like cozying up to the Soviets. He had an outsized ego that told him he was smarter than other people."

No, Ms Penny is not alluding to Donald Trump.

[Hand-colored woodcut, 1523,
for Martin Luther's New Testament]
She most likely wrote this passage in late 2014 before Trump had begun exploring the possibility of running for president. And, while Trump's connections to Russia had been going on for decades, they were not yet a matter of public speculation.

Penny's stories tend to have literary, not political, themes, and this book is no exception. In it she frequently mentions an image from the biblical book of Revelation, chapters 17 and 18: the great whore who--riding a fearsome seven-headed beast--glorifies herself and lives luxuriously, consorts with kings and merchants, helps them become rich and powerful, and deceives all nations.

But don't feel bad if your first thought was that the passage referred to Trump, not the great whore. Feel bad because the two have so much in common.